If you’ve discussed language learning with me before, you may know that I follow a lot of polyglot blogs. Since I want to learn many languages, I love hearing about others’ experiences in language learning. Last week, I had the chance to experience a language-learning method I have longed to use — learning one language through another.
When I first came to Taiwan, the life experience of my fellow students astonished me. Some of my friends are familiar with languages ranging from German to Japanese, and a few have explored up to six languages. One of these new friends, J, has studied sign language for six years with plans to become an interpreter. Though he is most proficient in American Sign Language, he teaches himself other sign languages when he can. One day when a few of us were going out to lunch, he walked over to two people speaking Taiwanese sign language and joined their conversation! In the past two months, he has gained basic knowledge of Taiwanese Sign Language through conversations with people he met around Taiwan.
As we prepared for the Taiwan US Alliance closing ceremony, our group decided to accompany our Chinese and English knowledge with a lesson in ASL through a multilingual performance of “It’s a Small World After All.” So after badminton last Monday, I walked into the hallway of the NKCU medical school to find J signing to eleven other students, silent except for the occasional murmurings in Chinese. For two hours we listened as he explained words, told deaf jokes, and described our surroundings in both American and Taiwanese Sign Language.
The visual quality of sign language paired with the exaggerated hand motions and animated expressions of our teacher made it easy to follow. We easily followed the basic signs, though we still encountered moments when we paused, confused about a word. But during those rare moments that we did speak, few people uttered a word of English — the majority of questions to confirm a definition were voiced in Chinese. Even J would break into Chinese on occasion to clarify a confusing grammar point or a word that stumped everyone.
Through exploring a new language, we were able to develop our proficiency in Chinese by learning new words to explain the words in ASL. Since the TUSA students are divided into five language levels, we often spent time with people from different sections, learning new words from those in other classes while reinforcing our own knowledge by helping students in lower levels learn. Though we only had a few meetings of our sign language class before TUSA ended, I am so thankful to my peers for that opportunity to explore a new language through the one I am learning.
Have you studied a foreign language with the help of one you already knew? What are some of your favorite strategies for learning multiple languages at once?